Three Lives Cut Short

Helena Pittelkow
5 September 1893 — 24 July 1915

Meta Zopke
25 April 1892 — 24 July 1915

Hedwig “Hattie” Zopke
5 April 1895 — 24 July 1915

Meta and Hedwig were sisters, and Helena was the little sister of their older brother William’s wife Minnie. All boarded the Eastland bound for the Western Electric Company picnic in Michigan City early on the morning of 24 July 1915 and lost their lives in the disaster.

Helena was the youngest child of Albert and Mathilde Treichel Pittelkow. The couple married in 1878 and immigrated to the US in 1882 with their toddler son Erich. Erich seems possibly to have died very shortly after their arrival, though the records are inconclusive, but in any case he vanishes after the immigration record appearance. Mathilde died in October 1895, so we don’t have any insight into how many children she had, but those who survived childhood were Herman (1885), Mary (1886), Minnie (1888), Mathilda (1891), and Helena. Mathilde was buried at Concordia (though the location is not yet documented).

In 1900, all four Pittelkow girls were listed as wards of the state and inmates at the German Evangelical Lutheran Orphan Asylum in Addison, Illinois (which is where Lillie Diener and her cousins had spent the day before they were killed in a train wreck while coming home ten years before this). Herman, who would’ve been fifteen in 1900 and old enough to have gone to work, was not listed as an inmate at the orphanage, but I can’t find him on the 1900 or 1910 censuses either.

In spite of their having been turned over to the state, their father Albert was still alive, though I also can’t find him in the census. Albert was a tailor, and I think he may have even remarried two months after their mother’s death, in December 1895, but if that was the correct Albert (which I’m 99% sure it was), that marriage ended in divorce prior to 1910. It’s possible and even likely that — again if this is the correct Albert — that second marriage ended in divorce very quickly and that is why the girls ended up at an orphanage. Perhaps the second wife had agreed to marry to help out and things did not go as she’d hoped. It does not appear that she had been married previously, and she reverted to her maiden name for the rest of her life, which supports my theory that it was a very short marriage.

If Albert was too busy, too poor, too overwhelmed, or perhaps too unwell or dissolute, to care for four young daughters by himself, turning them over to the orphan asylum may have seemed like his only option, but he did have family in Chicago so it is a puzzle as to why this solution was decided upon for the girls.

According to Helena’s obituary, she was living at 1057 N. Hamlin when she died. This was the home of Frank Pittelkow, an undertaker, who was most likely her uncle. In 1910, a niece and nephew were living with the family at this address though they do not appear to be each other’s siblings. The most obvious interpretation of the scribbled name given for the niece is Tillie (and so Mathilda); the age given would have been correct for Helena, and we know she was living there 5 years later. Most interestly, however, is that this 18-year-old niece was working as a machine hand at an electric company — almost certainly Western Electric. One of Frank’s own daughters, Anna, was also working at the same place in 1910. The Zopke family lived just a short way down Hamlin from the Pittelkows, so this may have been how the two families knew each other initially.

If the 1910 census niece was actually Helena, either with the wrong name given to the census-taker or under an unfamiliar nickname (the writing looks most like Tillie but could also be Ellie), this would explain the picnic connection. If it was Mathilda, it might have been through her connections that Helen and the Zopkes were invited five years later.

Albert’s apparent absence from the everyday lives of his children seems to underscore an inability to cope with single parenthood even after his children were old enough to contribute to a household. Perhaps there were hard feelings about the aftermath of their mother’s death and they chose their uncle’s household as their homebase.

Since he was a tailor and turned up several times in the city directories, it is a bit baffling that he doesn’t turn up in 1900 or 1910 on the census. He died in 1917 almost exactly two years after Helena’s death and is also buried at Concordia, though I’m not sure where exactly his marker is, either. I plan to try to find him and Mathilde once the snow melts.

Frank Pittelkow had his business premises on Armitage, and it was from there that the Zopke sisters were taken to Pilgrim Church for their funeral and from the church to Concordia. Though her obituary doesn’t include this information, it’s likely this was also the case for Helena and that the three girls shared a funeral which many Eastland victims did in the disaster’s aftermath.

The Zopkes had experienced some pretty big losses as well, prior to Meta and Hattie’s deaths, but their family had stayed together. Their parents — Franz and Louisa Dittman Zopke — had ten children, only four surviving childhood. Franz died in 1903 and though it falls between the census records, it’s likely Louisa relied on eldest William to support the family until Meta and Hattie were old enough to go to work. By 1910, William had married Minnie Pittelkow and moved into a home of his own, and Meta and Hattie’s jobs at the tailor shop were supporting their mother and little brother Frank Jr.

Though there is no definite entry for Helena on the 1910 census, Minnie, who had married the year before, does show up with William. This marriage ties the two families together the most directly, because it was unclear as to why Helena was buried with the Zopkes otherwise. I expected a marital tie but had been looking for it in their parents’ generation.

The two obituaries for the girls, which ran in the 31 July 1915 special edition of the Chicago Tribune, are very low on details. They don’t mention why the girls were at the picnic nor with whom. It isn’t clear even if the three girls attended together though I think we can gather that they did. If any of the girls worked at Western Electric, this is also not mentioned.

What Helena’s obituary does give us, though, is a snapshot of her family 15 years after the orphanage years. Mathilda and Minnie were married while she, Mary, and Herman were still single. We know she was living with her uncle at the time of her death, but without any census information, it’s unclear if Herman and Mary were living there as well.

In the absence of facts, my speculation is that the three girls, all close in age, unmarried, and perhaps recently more closely acquainted via their siblings’ marriage, had planned the day together. It’s likely at least one of them worked at Western Electric and instigated the plan, though perhaps all three did.

Update (15 April 2022): I was able to access some additional records which shed light on this story. William Zopke was the Western Electric employee and his sisters and sister-in-law were attending the picnic as his guests. The information I found does not say if William and Minnie were also there with their sisters, though that is the most likely scenario. It’s likely if all were on the Eastland that the single girls were together and William and Minnie were elsewhere on the boat which is why they survived. It’s also possible that William and Minnie intended to take a later boat and meet up with their sisters in Michigan City.

After his sisters’ deaths, Frank Jr cared for his mother Louisa until her death in 1925. He married about a year after her death but sadly died in 1931, leaving William as the only surviving Zopke. He and Minnie had one child, a daughter, and lived into old age.

Mathilda married in 1911 and had two sons with her first husband who died in 1916 at the age of just 23 years old. Mathilda remarried in 1919 and her sons took their stepfather’s name. She lived to be 83 and was buried with her second husband.

Herman Pittelkow lived with his sister Mary and her husband in 1920 but died a few years later at the age of 40, never having married or had children of his own. Mary also lived into old age though I could not track when exactly she died or where she was buried.

All three markers are the bolster variety, and there are leftover indications that all three once had cameo portraits affixed on the left side. Only Meta’s shows any clear evidence of it, but there are bolt marks on the other two headstones if you know to look for them.

RIP Zopkes and Pittelkows

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